Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - Once a citizen, now a stranger

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

Olimpiada Ignatenko finds herself unwelcome when she returns to her homeland in Russia.

By Olimpiada Ignatenko, Chairperson of "Zov"

My ancestors and I were all born in Russia but later in life, by one of those strokes of fate, I found myself living in Kazakstan. While we had all lived in a single, unified country called the Soviet Union, this did not matter and I did not feel isolated from my true homeland, Russia.

But then the Union disintegrated in 1991 and suddenly we ethnic Russians became strangers almost overnight in the former Soviet Republics.

Nationalism swept Kazakstan in the wake of the empire's collapse. So when the government in Moscow issued a special decree offering Russian returnees land and loans to start a new life my family decided to return to its roots.

I came back in 1993 as part of a 37-strong pioneer group and we settled in a village called Lomovoye in the Lipetsk region. We named our migrant organization "Zov" or "Call," since we thought it was our homeland which had called for our return.

The members of our group were all former urban residents but we were willing to change our lifestyles and work together in a single, compact settlement similar to many in Russia these days.

The local administration decided otherwise, however, and against our wishes it scattered our band of migrants to different locations in the same region. Since then our relations have been far from friendly and even the local population, which initially welcomed our arrival, has turned negative.

We began by leasing land from the government, but two years later they tried to take it back claiming that construction work was progressing too slowly. We were not to blame because the amount of state loans we received only covered the cost of the buildings foundations. In addition, we had to produce nails, cultivate land and grow wheat just to survive.

Last summer there was a very good crop even though our agricultural machinery had been vandalized by strangers at the start of the planting season. The UNHCR office in Moscow came to our rescue with emergency funds and it also gave us a loan on preferential terms to open a sewing workshop.

Huge taxes still prevent us from saving money to build housing, so all this time our small migrant community has been living in shipping containers.

My husband used to be a scientific researcher but now he works as a bricklayer. My daughter is a doctor but now works as a seamstress. I used to teach in a technical school and now I am in charge of the "Zov" organization.

When we returned to Russia my family and other pioneers were lucky enough to get refugee status. Now, when other migrants returning from other Commonwealth of Independent States countries want to join our organization, the local administration refuses to register them. The authorities believe there are more than enough migrants already living in Lomovoye.

People are so poor in Russia today that they have stopped caring about others, let alone refugees. But no matter what, we believe this dark period of Russian history will be over soon. Each day we work very hard and we are sure the settlement we dream of will be built sooner or later. And recently the "Zov" community increased by one new member, my granddaughter Anna. I hope that when she grows up she will not feel sorry that she was born in Russia.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (1997)